WASHINGTON — Retaining quality health care for veterans has become an increasingly pressing issue during the pandemic for the Department of Veterans Affairs, lawmakers and VA officials discussed during a House hearing on Wednesday.

The House Veterans’ Affairs Health Subcommittee gathered to discuss 13 pieces of legislation that addressed several issues concerning the current health challenges veterans are facing. The VA Nurse and Physician RAISE Act, which calls for the increase of the pay limitations on nurse and physician assistant salaries within the VA., received support from lawmakers across the aisle.

Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., warned that the VA cannot attract top-talent if nurses and physician assistants can make more money elsewhere.

“As nurses and PAs ascend in their roles, the VA’s compressed pay scale means it’s possible they won’t make any more money even as they take on greater responsibilities,” Underwood said. “This is especially prevalent in high income areas.”

According to Karen Ott, director for Policy and Legislation with the VA, the use of surveys to determine appropriate pay for health care professionals is based on the locale. Higher pay caps are provided in areas with higher incomes. However, Dr. Ott said the VA lacks the flexibility to increase those pay caps quickly enough to compete with outside salaries.

VA officials agreed with lawmakers and said that “maximum flexibility” is needed to ensure better recruitment and retainment of quality nurses and physician assistants. The inability to offer competitive salaries in higher income cities has led to disparities in veterans’ healthcare services. A problem, which Underwood said, has been “even more severe due to COVID-19.” 

“Over the years, our nurses have hit the pay cap earlier and earlier in their careers and it’s hard to retain them, and hard to recruit,” Ott said. “Without that immediate flexibility of the [RAISE Act] it would be slower for us to be able to respond.”

Ott emphasized that although the VA can never be a  pay leader, knowing what the market pay is, and the ability to respond accordingly, can help them implement a more enticing pay cap. 

“Nurses now are in such demand that they are going on registries and getting paid on a daily basis,” said subcommittee Chairwoman Julia Brownley, D-Calif. “It’s just so competitive out there, so the VA really needs to respond to the market.”